Back Home: Lilli Backes strengthens Georgia’s chances to return to OKC

Georgia pitcher Lilli Backes (99) during Georgia’s game against South Dakota during the annual Red & Black Showcase at Jack Turner Stadium at Turner Sports Complex in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (Kari Hodges/UGAAA)

Peachtree City, Georgia is about a two-hour drive to Athens, home of the Georgia Bulldogs. Unsurprisingly, Lilli Backes, who left a legacy at the nearby Starr’s Mill High School that included multiple Pitcher of the Year awards and a state title, grew up wanting to be a part of the red and black.

However, her pathway to being a Bulldog wasn’t as simple as the two-hour drive. Backes graduated from Starr’s Mill early to begin her collegiate career at North Carolina. She quickly emerged as the go-to arm, leading the Tar Heels in innings back-to-back years. Although she had a career-losing record through two seasons, the talent was undoubtedly present in the lefty.

When Backes decided to enter the transfer portal this offseason, home was calling on the other side and in her mind she had finally made it.

“It’s so special to play here at Georgia and play with a lot of these girls that I grew up playing with,” Backes said. “I always wanted to be a Bulldog growing up. Coming to the games as a kid, to me, ‘making it’ was being on the Georgia Bulldog team. I don’t think I could’ve even imagined this would happen.”

This isn’t just a feel-good story either. Backes was an integral addition to what Georgia hopes to be a Women’s College World Series roster. If you hadn’t seen what Backes was capable of, she likely introduced herself during the Clearwater Invitational. While nearly every other pitcher struggled to keep balls in the yard, Backes was making her presence known.

She held Wisconsin scoreless for 5.1 innings while her offense mounted a comeback. She stifled a strong UCLA lineup and closed out the win over Oklahoma State. Backes has fit in perfectly with Shelby Walters, Madison Kerpics and a veteran lineup that has started a majority of games since the Bulldogs’ 2021 run to Oklahoma City.

10 strikeouts of Backes’ from the Clearwater Invitational via Synergy Sports

“She’s been everything we hoped for and more in terms of what she’s brought to our team” Georgia head coach Tony Baldwin said. “Clearwater was her weekend. She took it and ran with it. Next weekend it might be someone else, that’s how it works. One of the reasons she wanted to come back to Georgia was that she didn’t have to carry the load by herself and be an important piece of the process (with Shelby and Madison).

“They are three completely different people with three different styles of pitching. That makes it tough in today’s game because it’s hard to prepare for their uniqueness.”

When Backes first pledged to her hometown school, people may have seen the 8.24 ERA her freshman season and raised an eyebrow. Stats only tell so much of the story. It was a bit of baptism by fire for her as you remember she was throwing for an ACC team when she was supposed to be enjoying her final semester as a high schooler.

That experience was invaluable for her.

Lilli Backes always dreamed of donning the red and black. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

“I learned so much in those years. I got so many innings. Playing that competition so early it really helped me mentality to compete at a higher level and develop my pitches,” Backes said.

It seems that Backes has always been mature for her age. The things she was asked to do this offseason, she welcomed with an open mind and it has paid dividends.

“She’s been very impressive,” Baldwin said. “Her ability to come here and adjust to the new environment. She’s connected with (pitching coach) Chelsea (Wilkinson), they’ve built a good relationship. Her willingness to grow her game and desire to grow her game. She’s doing things she hasn’t been successful at or been able to do in the past. Those are the things I’m really proud of her for doing.

“The other fact is that she is very competitive. She is consistent in her thoughts and emotions. That’s more the anomaly today rather than the norm.”

What has Georgia pushed Backes to do compared to her time before college and at North Carolina?

According to Baldwin, they’ve seen an improvement in how she has used both sides of the plate, especially to righties. Based on the data from Synergy Sports, Backes has used her curveball more on the inside half this season compared to last year when she attacked right-handed hitters last year using the outside of the plate.

Backes’ curveball usage to right-handed hitters in 2023 (left) vs. 2024 (right) via Synergy Sports.

“Her ability to use both sides of the plate has really helped her,” Baldwin said. “What I saw at North Carolina and her high school/travel balls days was somebody who was competitive and had the ability to execute during the game. When the lights are on she has the ability to execute her plan and it’s a skill that she does really well.”

As the transfer portal dominates most offseason talk in nearly any collegiate sport, there are many aspects that we look over. For a good amount of players there is a transition period. Buying into the culture and putting full faith into the new coaching staff can take time. But that hasn’t been the case for Backes.

“In the offseason, I grew so much working with Chelsea and being surrounded by the talent that we have in this program. She has been a great pitching coach to work with. We’ve focused on spin since I’ve been here. That is something I haven’t focused on as much on in the past and that improvement has helped me a lot.

“Practicing every day has made all of us better. To be able to throw to our hitters during the offseason, there is no better offense that pitchers can be throwing to and get better from.”

All of that work with her dream team and trust in Georgia’s coaching staff has resulted in positive outcomes for the junior lefty. Backes currently leads Georgia’s qualified pitchers in innings (29.2), ERA (2.12), WHIP (.94), and Saves (3) ahead of the team’s Top-10 clash with Clemson on Wednesday. Whether it’s at home or painting the black of home plate at Jack Turner Stadium, Backes is happy to be back.

Previous article2025 Softball America Recruiting Rankings
Next articleThe Lineup: Top-10 midweek matchup, SEC & Pac-12 showdowns, OU opens Love’s